11 Jan 2009, 3:00pm
Cultural Landscapes Native Cultures
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The legacy of cultural landscapes in the Brazilian Amazon: implications for biodiversity

Michael J. Heckenberger, J. Christian Russell, Joshua R. Toney, and Morgan J. Schmidt. 2007. The legacy of cultural landscapes in the Brazilian Amazon: implications for biodiversity. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2007) 362, 197–208

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


For centuries Amazonia has held the Western scientific and popular imagination as a primordial forest, only minimally impacted by small, simple and dispersed groups that inhabit the region. Studies in historical ecology refute this view. Rather than pristine tropical forest, some areas are better viewed as constructed or ‘domesticated’ landscapes, dramatically altered by indigenous groups in the past. This paper reviews recent archaeological research in several areas along the Amazon River with evidence of large pre-European (ca 400–500 calendar years before the present) occupations and large-scale transformations of forest and wetland environments. Research from the southern margins of closed tropical forest, in the headwaters of the Xingu River, are highlighted as an example of constructed nature in the Amazon. In all cases, human influences dramatically altered the distribution, frequency and configurations of biological communities and ecological settings. Findings of historical change and cultural variability, including diverse small to medium-sized complex societies, have clear implications for questions of conservation and sustainability and, specifically, what constitutes ‘hotspots’ of bio-historical diversity in the Amazon region.


The preservation of tropical forests in the Amazon is central to current debates about environmental and climate change across the globe. Greater Amazonia, which refers to the largely forested Orinoco and Amazon river basins, preserves nearly one half of the world’s remaining tropical forests. It contains nearly a quarter of the world’s fresh water and produces roughly one-third of the world’s oxygen, over an area larger than Europe (nearly one-third of South America). According to The Nature Conservancy (TNC website: www.nature.org; consulted 2December 2006), Amazonia is also home to over one-third of the Earth’s known species, and as such is one of the most critical reservoirs of biodiversity on the planet. Not surprisingly, concerns over biological conservation and the future of the region as a critical ‘tipping point’ in the Earth’s climate and ecology are widespread.

The discovery of remarkable variability within Amazonia over the past few decades has overturned popular characterizations of the region as a fairly uniform, impenetrable lowland jungle strangled with plants and teeming with exotic fauna of all kinds. Recent research coupled with the immense power and widespread availability of satellite imagery reveals that, although generally flat and green, there is astonishing biological and ecological variability. …

The documentation of immense biological variation has done little to change stereotypes of the indigenous occupants of the region—as traditionally small-scale and dispersed villages of ’stone-age primitives’ hidden away in forest clearings. The majority opinion still holds that natural forces and processes, little impacted by human actions until recently, are responsible for the current composition of the region. However, appearances are deceiving and, in this case, the present composition of the region as closed forest often masks an environmental history much more complex.

In-depth studies in ethnohistory and archaeology, i.e. studies with sufficient time-depth to evaluate long-term patterns, clearly document that some areas were home to fairly densely settled, highly productive and powerful regional polities in the past. These small to medium-sized complex societies converted many forests into patchy, managed landscapes, which included fairly large-scale transformations of soils, forest plants and animals, and wetlands.

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9 Jan 2009, 3:24pm
Cultural Landscapes The Wilderness Myth
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Of Fates, Forests, and Futures: Myths, Epistemes, and Policy in Tropical Conservation

Susanna B. Hecht. 1993. Of Fates, Forests, and Futures: Myths, Epistemes, and Policy in Tropical Conservation. Horace Marden Albright Lecturer in Conservation. UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts


In spite of increasingly strident international censure, the global rates of deforestation in the tropical world have more than doubled during the last decade (Myers 1990). This destructive pattern is well advanced in the Western Amazon. In 1980, less than 8,000 km of Rondonia’s forests had fallen. Acre’s forests were largely intact. By the end of the decade some 60,000 km, or 17% of the state of Rondonia had been cleared. In Acre - more distant, fewer roads and more politically organized - by the mid-1990s, some 5% of the lands had been deforested (FUNTAC 1990). Spurred by government colonization programs, fiscal distortions, land speculation, timber concessions, dubious land titles and the migration of almost a million peasants from southern Brazil (World Bank, 1989), forests relentlessly fell. Degraded pastures and abandoned farms soon replaced rich woodlands. Weed invasion, declines in soil fertility, and frontier economics all took their toll as colonists and ranchers pressed ever forward. …

Rapid deforestation and resource degradation are related to the ecological instability and economic peculiarities of the forms of land occupation expressed by current regional development efforts. But why such forms of land use have come to dominate the landscape leads us further to questions that lie at the heart of deforestation: how we understand it, and how we hope to halt it.

What I will do in this article is to explore some of the deeper epistemological issues that inform our models and environmental sciences of how the world unfolds in these regions. While the scientific literature, airwaves and popular culture barrage us with “explanations,” these competing, largely unexamined paradigms have policy and real-world outcomes. I will examine first two broad overarching approaches that have been instrumental in defining resources debates in the first world, how these have articulated with the scientific frameworks that have been significant in interpreting tropical forests and populations as well as their peoples. I will also discuss the emerging counter view. These will then be linked to explanations of deforestation, and their policy consequences.

The Amazon has always been a mirror to the vibrant fantasies of its observers. Any review of its history is always tremendously disconcerting because there are so many disparate versions of Amazonia, in part because the region is so enormous. But as much as it is a forest of trees, it is also in Turner’s phrase “a forest of symbols.” …

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3 Jan 2009, 10:25am
Cultivated Landscapes
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Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes

William M. Denevan. 2001. Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Review by Mike Dubrasich

Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes is widely recognized as the modern masterpiece of historical landscape geography. It is one of a trilogy of books inspired and coordinated by William Denevan. The others are Cultivated Landscapes of Native North America by William Doolittle and Cultivated Landscapes of Middle America on the Eve of Conquest by Thomas M. Whitmore and B.L. Turner II.

The authors of all three volumes are landscape geographers who have studied the profound and lasting impacts that indigenous human beings have had over thousands of years on the vegetation, soils, hydrology, and wildlife of the Americas.

Denevan is the unofficial “godfather” of an intellectual tradition that developed under Carl O. Sauer in the Department of Geography at Berkeley. UCLA’s Susanna Hecht described that tradition (tongue in cheek, with affection) as a machine:

The geographer William Denevan’s “machine” (and its affines) and the Berkeley School of cultural geography converged with historical ethnobotany and compiled an extensive set of analyses on indigenous resource management systems in Central America, the Andes, and the Amazon, where questions about landscape and ecological histories whose logics, though not divorced from productionist questions (what fed large populations in these difficult montane or tropical environments?) were linked to their historical, agroecological and environmental underpinnings (Balée and Erickson 2006; Denevan 1970, 1976, 1992, 2001; Denevan and Padoch 1987; Erickson 2000; Whitmore and Turner 2001; Zimmerer 2001). It was this framework, as well as pro indigenous activism that gave impetus to other projects, such as Darrell Posey’s 12 year Kayapó project, and those spearheaded by New York Botanical Garden’s Gillian Prance. — from SB Hecht, Chapter 7, Kayapó Savanna Management: Fire, Soils, and Forest Islands in a Threatened Biome in William Woods et al. 2009. Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek’s Vision, Springer (soon to be released).

All those mentioned by the verbose Hecht (Bill Woods, Bill Balée, Clark Erickson, etc.) and many more of our leading landscape geographers, anthropologists, ethnobotanists, and forest historians, trace their intellectual roots to Bill Denevan. Charles C. Mann’s fascinating bestseller, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus [here], was inspired directly and indirectly by Denevan and his “machine”.

In a biographical essay about Bill Denevan, I described him (tongue in cheek, with affection) as “the real Indiana Jones” [here]. As an adventurous young man in the 1950’s, Denevan boarded a freighter in Los Angeles and then jumped ship in Lima, Peru. He subsequently traversed South America and in a flight over eastern Bolivia “discovered” the signs of a lost civilization in the Llanos de Mojos. And like the fictitious Indiana Jones, Denevan went on to became a scholar (and Chair, now emeritus, of the Dept. of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).

Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes (and it’s companion books) is the culmination of a lifetime of pathfinding research and teaching. It is a text, organized and written for graduate and undergraduate instruction, but between the lines it is also a tale of adventure and exploration. The insights related in Cultivated Landscapes were gained by the combined efforts of dozens of field researchers braving jungles, savannas, trackless swamps, towering mountains, and seared deserts. The book is a synthesis, but it represents hands-on fieldwork in what we think of today as wilderness, but what in truth has been home to humanity for 10,000 years or more.

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